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This Size Fits All

By Mike Hotter

Flaming Lips

At War With the Mystics (Warner Bros.)

If fan banter on various indie- rock message boards is to be believed, there seem to be two distinct schools of thought regarding Oklahoma City’s psychedelic sons, the Flaming Lips. Many current Lips detractors still champion their early ’90s opuses, back when they plied the lysergic squonk aesthetic perfected by the likes of Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers. This group of former fans draws the line at 1999’s Soft Bulletin, and that’s where the rest of us came in. On Bulletin (as well as its sequel of sorts, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), Wayne Coyne and company turned the guitar amps down a bit and summoned up their collective Brian Wilson. The ambitious albums consisted of odes to survival and compassion in the face of a seemingly ambivalent universe, alongside finely calibrated headphone rock that hadn’t been heard since the days of Wish You Were Here and Physical Graffiti.

At War With the Mystics may very well please Lips fans of all stripes. For one thing, the buzzing guitar riffs are back. The Sabbathy crunch of “The W.A.N.D.” and “Free Radicals” leavens the prototypical poignancy of songs like “Vein of Stars,” where Coyne opines, “If there ain’t no Heaven, maybe there ain’t no Hell.” Beyond the usual pondering on the vagaries of existence, there’s an undertone of political discontent running through the album that is new to the Lips. Under the catchy robotic bleat of “Haven’t Got a Clue,” Coyne uncharacteristically threatens his subject with bodily harm—in the context of songs touting rebellion and antifanaticism, it’s easy to imagine to whom Coyne would like to give a bop on the snout.

Dave Fridmann is at the production helm again, and while there are still the occasional electronic squeals bubbling past the lush beds of mellotrons and Fender Rhodes, this has to the cleanest-sounding recording of the band’s career. What makes At War With the Mystics such a pleasurable album are not the strange sounds employed, but the wonderfully skewed sense of pop songcraft. The joyous middle eight of “It Overtakes Me” morphs into Westbound-era Funkadelic, while closer “Goin’ On” is a warm and gorgeous ballad that would fit on one of the better Wings records. While boasting no instant classics along the lines of “Race for the Prize” or “Do You Realize?,” this is a deeper album than its predecessors, and may prove, in retrospect, to be their most beloved.

Mystics is essentially the sound of a great band refining what they are best at, churning out expansive rock music with open hearts and minds. These days, music like this is sorely needed, no matter which side you are on.

Jaco Pastorius Big Band

The Word Is Out (Heads Up)

This is the second recording by a big band of flexible personnel and shared affection for the music of Jaco Pastorius, the star-crossed bass genius who died derelict and toxic in 1987. He was only 35. This shiny, listenable disc showcases material Pastorius developed in Weather Report and the Pat Metheny Group, as well as his own debut, an eponymous 1976 recording. It also is an opportunity for Heads Up parent Telarc to extend the brands of some of its recording artists, like adult-contemporary saxophonist Gerald Veasley and hyperactive Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip.

Despite such market calculations, the music is generally enjoyable and occasionally exciting, if not particularly in keeping with the more turbulent, more fusion-oriented atmospherics of the original. Certain soloists have more personality than others: Mike Stern puts an interesting twist on Pat Metheny’s original guitar in “Sirabhorn,” a Metheny tune on which Pastorius played, and Mike Levine evokes Herbie Hancock’s piano effectively (and somewhat Monkishly) on the sleek, pell-mell “Kuru/Speak Like a Child.” The musicianship is clean, professional and efficient; the band, conducted by Peter Graves, are a model of competence, and the selections are both eclectic and designed to please. Everyone from harmonica legend Jean “Toots” Thielemans to the young bass turk, Flecktone Victor Wooten, gets in on this act. Blending the Beatles’ “Blackbird” with the title track was a clever commercial move, too, though the connection between the two (is it that McCartney is a bassist, too?) is unclear.

The Word Is Out is generally sunny; there’s little of the tension or drama that made Pastorius so memorable on bass and in his too-short life. It’s a good album to hum to and travel behind. But it’s not as arresting as it might have been, because technique trumps personality here.

—Carlo Wolff

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